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You've Got to Face It

January 1, 2009 By:
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Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein

For those who know of Vanity Fair only in its most recent incarnation -- that is, over the last 25 years -- and are unaware of its justifiably storied past, Vanity Fair The Portraits: A Century of Iconic Images may prove to be an eye-opener on various levels. The work is built on a truly monumental scale -- it's nearly 11 inches wide and just about 14 inches tall, as well as an inch thick -- and produced to meet all the meticulous standards that have become second nature at Abrams, the great art-book publisher. Vanity Fair The Portraits also provides an expansive history -- and not just of the pictorial kind -- of a legendary publication (legendary in both its major phases, though for different reasons), from its beginnings in 1913 until its demise in the middle of the Great Depression, and then its shaky relaunching in 1983 until it got on an even keel, thanks to the editorships of Tina Brown and Graydon Carter.

Carter, along with other current "editors" of the magazine, have been given credit for creating this striking compilation of images.

The publishers boast that 95 years of photographic history are portrayed between the covers of this book -- and one would hardly attempt to contradict them.

The volume is determinedly thorough, which is not always the case, even with oversized coffee-table enterprises like this one. The great body of photographs, reproduced and arranged with panache and style, is preceded by five lengthy essays by people like Carter and staff writer Christopher Hitchens, which deconstruct the different phases of the magazine. One of these five pieces states unequivocally that Vanity Fair's first incarnation set the standard for "the portrait photograph in the modern age" (that's actually the article's title), and that the tradition has not only been maintained but reinvented in its second phase of life.

This is where I part company with the proceedings, somewhat, and on this particular point I know I'll be stating a minority opinion. But Vanity Fair The Portraits seems, at least to my mind, to reinforce my argument. The trouble may simply be that I do not think as highly of photographer Annie Leibovitz, one of the dominant presences in the new magazine, who helped to set the tone of the reincarnated V.F. In fact, I think she's one of the most overrated photographers now working.

Not that she hasn't done some wonderful work (although her widely praised photographic record of her lover Susan Sontag's death is both harrowing and downright creepy).

Look at her classic photo of a young Whoopi Goldberg, immersed in a bathtub filled with milk, and you'll see how clever she could be, especially when she was just starting out.

Now, however, most of her photos are simply standard head-on color portraits, and, whenever they're effective, it's because they play on the grossness or oddness of the person, as in her shot of former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, looking bloated as he stand by his pool, which dates from 2000. Put them next to any of the black-and-white images from the first period of Vanity Fair -- startling, imaginative takes on people and personalities -- and these contemporary photos, whether by Leibovitz or other current V.F. photographers, wither in comparison.

The first incarnation of the magazine was an intellectual -- or, perhaps more accurately, an intellectualized -- celebrity fest, but the people wielding the cameras had imagination and flare, and caught some of the great images of all time. I'm not certain, except in the inflated marketplace of ideas we now live in, that V.F. Part II could ever compete.

But perhaps there are two other reasons for this discrepancy. It may be that color photography -- except in the hands of the great masters -- can never hold a candle to black and white, which was the staple of Vanity Fair the first time out.

But it might also be due to the fact that the celebrities of today just don't have the grace and power of personality that held true for all sorts of celebrities, from all walks of life, in the first half of the 20th century. For evidence, just look at the spread that starts on Page 142. Leonardo DiCaprio is on the right, wearing a leather bomber jacket, his hair swept back, his eyes a deep blue. But if you look to the left, you see Clark Gable in all his black-and-white splendor, smiling that inimitable smile, and he obliterates the little man-boy DiCaprio in one fell swoop. 

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